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The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
A film and a half
It is said that a good movie is one that feels like a sensual and emotional *experience*, rather than simply a visual presentation. A brilliant movie, then, is one that is not simply a singular identifiable experience - it is a multi-dimensional layer of intertwined experiences; individual plots, ambiences and presentation styles, all masterfully combined into a tour de force of a film. THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY is one such movie, a breathtakingly accomplished combination of several potentially separate film experiences. It is at once an ornate and dazzling drama; a multifarious, intriguing and heart-wrenching romance; a reticulate and psychologically manipulating thriller; and, ultimately, an unsettlingly potent psycho-portrait of the American dream. From its characters to its composition, from its symbolism to its script, the entire film is splendidly multi-dimensional, an innovation in the art of direction. Whether it captures you, terrifies you, disgusts you, or all three, or whatever you might make of the film, there is no denying it - THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY is a unique experience, a film and a half.
Mr. Adams would have been proud
Are you looking for a comedy that combines light-hearted and exuberant humour with a cerebral and incisively entertaining script? Many Hollywood scriptwriters and directors are, and their recent efforts at producing such a film have been a mixed bag, ranging from the original but esoteric WHAT THE BLEEP DO WE KNOW?! to the laboured and poorly-executed Christmas WITH THE KRANKS. Debut director Garth Jennings has finally, I believe, hit the spot with his adaption of Douglas Adams' humorous science fiction novel, THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY. This is a highly entertaining and near-flawlessly presented film. It is not without its quirks and oddities, which, depending on the nature of your sense of humour, may depreciate its quality immensely; if you simply take it at face value and try to enjoy yourself, however, this movie shouldn't disappoint.
The printed HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY is, in fact, a quartet of novels - or, as Douglas Adams expressed it, "a trilogy in four parts". This latter description aptly epitomises the structure of these books - humorous in a random and quirky fashion, and not possessed of any particular structure. In order to avoid having the plot pitch into a confused mess, the film's script has a more clearly defined destination.
It begins in a similar fashion - Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), a young Englishman is narrowly saved from the destruction of planet Earth by his eccentric friend, Ford Prefect (Mos Def), who turns out to be from a planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse, and not from Guildford after all. Hitching a ride with the fugitive president of the galaxy,Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), who comes through as a younger, more benign Ronald Reagan, they find themselves on a mission to rescue the only other surviving Earthling in the galaxy (Zooey Deschanel) from the clutches of the bureaucratic Vogons. The laughs come thick and fast, and the pace is consistently rollicking. All this is presented on gorgeous, CGI-enhanced sets, with a wonderful effort from Jim Henson's workshop in the alien-puppets-and-costumes department.
While I found this to be side-splittingly hilarious, there are quite a number of people who have no patience for wacky humour, and who might perceive this as giddy drivel. This is quite understandable - THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, and if you didn't like ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, you might hate this. Beyond that, the film has few flaws overall, except Zaphod's double-headed stunt, which thankfully ceases fairly early on.
The cast are a coherent ensemble of intelligent, talented actors with a lot of personality, and not only are they excellent as individuals, but display tremendous energy and coherency as a cast. Martin Freeman IS Arthur Dent - he is convincing and dryly funny as always. Mos Def was an unusual choice as Ford (and I've seen him cop a lot of racist flack over this, even on IMDb), but he proves to be the right man for the job in a scene-stealing and thoroughly memorable performance. Sam Rockwell performs well as Zaphod, even if his comic stupidity becomes a little irksome after a while; Zooey Deschanel is a likable character and an interesting and endearing love interest; and Bill Nighy, Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman provide solid background performances, particularly Rickman, who has perhaps the most consistently amusing script in the entire film.
Don't expect miracles from HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY - it is supremely unpredictable, and may not turn out to be the right comedy for you. In the event that it is, however, it's definitely worth a look. 8/10.
Not bad, not great either
UNDERWORLD is a hybrid horror movie, a cross-pollination of genres containing elements of action, fantasy drama, and good-old-fashioned chills and thrills. It tells the tale of a war amongst the supernatural underbelly of a city, in which a clan of Vampires is pitted against that of the Werewolves in a savage guerilla war sparked by an archaic feud between the two races. While this rather interesting concept sets the stage for what looked like a decent horror film, the ungainly, confused script, overdone visual effects and a few rather grating performances let the entire movie down into the depths of mediocrity.
The basic thematic premise of the film - that is, that the viewer must ultimately choose which side, the Vampires or the Lycans, is in the right- is very interesting, but unfortunately, the poorly-planned and unbalanced plot doesn't give us much room to manoeuvre. For starters, the central character, Selene (an aesthetically appealing but often emotionless Kate Beckinsale), is a Vampire; as a result, we are given a fairly one-sided view of the action for at least the first half of the film. The plot would have been much more balanced if the key protagonist had therefore been Michael Corvin, Scott Speedman's character, a human with the potential to resolve the conflict. Through his perspective, this film would have unfolded much more coherently - however, with Selene dominating the film, the result is that the Vampires have much more screen time.
Then again, this may not matter, for another flaw in the plot is that, in the end, we aren't given any scope for a moral choice between the two sides - and one is much more appealing than the other anyway. The Lycans are excellently presented, well-acted, and the scariest and most interesting characters in the film;while they don't exactly turn out to be in the right, so to speak, they come off with the moral high ground. The Vampires, on the other hand, are mostly boring and poorly acted, too similar to ordinary humans to be remotely frightening or interesting,and come through as a bunch of hedonistic toffs in Matrix-style leather; furthermore, their leader, Viktor (played by Bill Nighy) turns out to be a fascist old viper who instigated the war between the races in the first place. As for the war itself, while the action scenes are well-planned and blisteringly kinetic(particularly the fight in the subway), it simply doesn't try hard enough to frighten you. It may say "Horror" on the video case, but don't expect nightmares from UNDERWORLD.
Presenting this interesting but half-baked plot is a mostly skillful cast, who have been held back, if at all, by their overdone and unconvincing dialogue. Only Michael Sheen and Scott Speedman shine, putting on masterful and appropriately Gothic performances, and respectively providing some of the rare, genuinely frightening moments in the film. Bill Nighy is too brilliant an actor to ever come off badly, but he doesn't seem to be exerting much effort in this characterisation; Shane Brolly is stomach-churningly woeful, with his "acting" consisting primarily of scowling and muttering through clenched teeth; and Robbie Gee, while his delivery is good, is failed by his ridiculously corny dialogue.
The visuals in this film are its major saving grace. The cinematography is fluid, atmospheric and energetic; the sets are intensely Gothic and hauntingly beautiful; and, while the graphically-depicted blood and gore gets a little tiresome towards the end of the film, the special effects are otherwise dazzling, particularly the transformation sequences, which are the best I've seen in a long time. While the Vampires' leather and the martial-arts antics of the Lycans remind us, not fondly or amusingly, of THE MATRIX and THE TERMINATOR, they fit in surprisingly well with the strong Gothic ambiance.
UNDERWORLD is a brilliant concept that was failed by its script; it is a beautiful piece of film-making that doesn't quite have the substance to fill its beautiful sets. Lakeshore have doomed this one to mediocrity- but it's worth a look if you stumble across it as you rummage in the bargain bin. 6/10.
For the hell of it
CONSTANTINE is, in essence, two separate movies. One is a thrilling and sophisticated horror film, acted by a vibrant and well-selected supporting cast and directed by a young and promising new feature film director. The other is an atrociously written and clumsily executed action turkey, a shameless ego platform for a schlocky actor and for some big-name producers looking to make a quick million at the box office. When they are presented as a two-hour film, we see elements of both, often in alternation, sometimes simultaneously, but never coherently. The entire movie feels unbalanced, as if the scriptwriters worked in total independence of one another during the writing process.
CONSTANTINE is an adaption of the Hellblazer comic book series - which regrettably, in the wake of stinkers like DAREDEVIL and THE PUNISHER, only detracts from its credibility. It is set against the background of the eternal struggle between Heaven and Hell, which has reached a detente of sorts - the servants of both kingdoms may no longer directly combat one another on the mortal plane, a condition referred to as "the Balance". Enter John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), an exorcist who has dedicated himself to banishing all the demons present on Earth in violation of the Balance. If you thought Reeves was intolerably wooden in THE MATRIX trilogy, you ain't seen nothing yet. This is, without a doubt, his most uninspired performance to date. His lines are mumbled and incoherently modulated, his delivery is lifeless and unconvincing, and his attempted smoker's cough is the fakest and most irritating I've ever heard. It doesn't help that, apart from a few ingenious smart-arse remarks, his character that might have been scripted by a six-year-old. Constantine is a role that requires the gritty sophistication of someone like Ray Liotta or Wesley Snipes, and it is searingly euphemistic to say that Keanu Reeves was miscast.
Perhaps all that saves this from becoming a glitzy "Keanu stinkfest", as valleyjerk so appropriately expressed it, is Rachel Weisz. She transcends the limitations of the half-baked script, which sometimes feels like it was thought up at three in the morning, to put on a brilliant characterisation as Angela Dodson, a deeply religious detective whose twin sister commits suicide under chilling circumstances. Desperate to arrange her a Catholic funeral, she seeks Constantine's aid. Thankfully, most of the dialogue is left to Weisz hereafter, while Keanu sticks mainly to the demon-shooting as they unravel an Infernal plot to begin a reign of Hell on Earth, orchestrated by the unhinged angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton). While, upon reflection, the plot is quite well-written and entertaining, the incoherent script, which ranges in quality from mind-numbingly cretinous to incisively lucid, means that it unfolds rather jerkily. It's a bumpy ride, to say the least.
Despite its crippling faults, CONSTANTINE is certainly a beautifully-presented movie, with creative and immerse cinematography, a good soundtrack by Klaus Badelt, and stunning special effects. And, although the screen-hogging Keanu is woeful, the supporting cast is excellent. Djimon Hounsou, Tilda Swinton, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Gavin Rossdale and Peter Stormare, who almost single-handedly steals the show as Satan himself, all act brilliantly. Shia laBeouf gives us yet another energetic performance as Constantine's neglected young sidekick - he is beginning to shake his teen-star sensibilities and come into his own as a supporting actor. Regrettably, they all have too little screen time to breathe life into the film. Rossdale, Vince and laBeouf are killed off; Stormare doesn't appear until the end; Hounsou and Swinton make appearances close to the beginning, and are then simply forgotten for forty minutes or so.
While CONSTANTINE is not just another schlock-horror action flick, it may prove to be the downfall of Keanu Reeves' career, and it's been an embarrassing start for director Francis Lawrence. While Lawrence's skillful direction cannot quite rise above the appalling script in CONSTANTINE, hopefully he will have another chance to prove himself in the near future. Hopefully, this film has garnered some well-deserved Hollywood attention for Peter Stormare and Rachel Weisz, and forced the big production companies to think twice before rolling off another comic-book adaption. Overall, it's a higher-brow VAN HELSING - it should entertain you for a Saturday afternoon, but as a serious film, it stinks. 5/10.
Look beneath the surface
I need not introduce TROY as I have done in the case of many other movies- it is, without a doubt, one of the best-known and most controversial Hollywood films of the year. Everyone knows, by now, that this is a de-mystified adaption of Homer's Illiad, the story of the war between the confederacy of Greece and the proud city-state of Troy as the result of one man's greed. In addition to this, most people have heard the critics denounce this film as a load of flashy, badly-written, poorly-acted garbage; there have also been arguments, from a group of die-hard fans, that TROY is a monumental achievement and deserves an Academy Award. Personally, I found it to be an immensely enjoyable and well-conceived movie with a lot of potential, but with a number of serious presentation flaws that were in enough, in the eyes of many, to pitch it into the fatal depths of mediocrity.
To begin with, the premise for this film is an excellent concept. Director Wolfgang Petersen has attempted to accomplish something truly wonderful here - to refresh, revitalise, and give a believable human face to the epic of the Illiad, which has tragically come to be considered by the general public as nothing but a mouldy old manuscript you have to read in Ancient History class. The scriptwriter has masterfully transfigured the original tale of gods, monsters and supernatural warriors into a gripping historical drama laced with heroism, intrigue and romance. The story's moral scenario has been adeptly conveyed in TROY - the concept of a struggle between nations, beyond good and evil, where the actions of a few individuals may fatally affect the lives of thousands of others. This is a concept that many scriptwriters of recent times have failed to coherently convey, and TROY is to be commended for all of the above.
It is in presentation, however, that TROY fails as an epic film. The art direction and cinematography, while all very spectacular, feels tiringly familiar, and is not presented with any particular creativity. The music is grating and repetitive, and again sounds somewhat rushed. But worst of all are the lead actors. Yes, you know who I'm talking about. Don't get me wrong- Brad Pitt is a capable actor who's put on some good performances over the course of his career. But his reputation will doubtless suffer from his performance in TROY, which is about as uninspired and wooden as they come. Diane Kruger, who plays Helen of Sparta, is of roughly the same standard. Eric Bana is an appropriately emotive Hector, but is not altogether convincing as a Greek prince.
Although they suffer from the woeful performances of their leads, the supporting cast is surprisingly capable and convincing. While Peter O'Toole has been described by critics as the only decent actor in the entire production, I believe Brian Cox, Rose Byrne and Brendan Gleeson also performed exceptionally well. Even the typically robotic Orlando Bloom is convincing in his role as the selfish, impetuous young prince Paris, and he even manages to enhance the film somewhat, giving the somewhat confused Eric Bana a bit of room to manoeuvre.
As a footnote, a character whose overall significance has been overlooked by many is Sean Bean's Odysseus. The balance of the war, and the story's pivotal moral decision, ultimately rested with him, he being the only character appropriately placed and wise enough to perceive and understand all sides of the story. Furthermore, in this character - and in this actor- lies Wolfgang Petersen's hope to redeem himself for the divisive TROY. If he could make an adaption of Homer's Odyssey, perhaps presented in a psychological, rather than a fantastic, vein, he may finally receive the recognition he deserves for such a magnificent concept as this movie's. Tragically, a half-baked cast and mediocre presentation have held TROY back from the greatness it deserves. 8/10.
Benny & Joon (1993)
Let it grow
This is not the first dramatic comedy themed around mental illness, but it is almost certainly one of the funniest and most touching. The characters are imaginative, convincing, and well-explored; the presentation is appropriately emotive. The plot, however, has a bit of a slow start, but persist with it, and you'll be rewarded.
Benny (Aidan Quinn) is a young man who is watching his life slowly pass him by. He is trapped in his hometown, constantly forced to worry about the safety and wellbeing of his sister, Joon (beatifully played by Mary Stuart Masterson), who is mentally ill. Torn between his thirst for life and his love and concern for his sister, Benny is finally persuaded to begin searching for an asylum for her. At this interval, however, he finds himself playing host to a friend's cousin (Johnny Depp), an eccentric and active young man who makes fast friends with Joon. The story unfolds in an emotive and colourful fashion, and makes for quite a memorable cinematic experience.
It is acting, however, that makes this film a good one. Quinn and Masterson are both wonderfully deep and emotional as the leads, and put some heart into what would have otherwise been a rather bog-standard script. Depp inserts a pervasive element of zany, unpredictable humour, an aspect that he has come to play recurrently in recent times. Julianne Moore and William H. Macy are solid, convincing supporting characters, providing a good background to the theatrical virtuosity of the others.
Stick with BENNY AND JOON. It may seem a little lethargic at first, but will grow into a touching, memorable and thoroughly enjoyable film. 8/10.
The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
In 1999 (or was it '98?), the Wachowski brothers brought us THE MATRIX. This was a fantastic film. While not exactly original, it was beautifully presented, fast-paced, well-written and excellently co-ordinated, proving to be one of the most successful science fiction movies of the decade. Four (five?) years later, they decided to snap up a quick million or two by extending the Matrix story into a trilogy. Financially advisable. Artistically? Possibly one of the worst courses of action it's possible to take.
THE MATRIX RELOADED is a shameless spin off of the first movie, an ill-conceived, atrociously-written, poorly-executed piece of cinematic sewage. It doesn't matter how many bucks this is worth, or how fast the fight scenes are, or how cool the computer graphics are - I have yet to hear any convincing argument to defend this pathetic film. It's unoriginal, protracted, convoluted, confused, brainless garbage.
More than anything else, it's excruciatingly boring. Close to four-fifths of the film is devoted to Neo and his buddies engaged in glorified punch-ups, firefights, car chases and mind-power duels with his foes. All of these run for an average fifteen minutes, enough time to send you into a stupor with the unimaginative, repetitive action and clumsy cinematography. Furthermore, the acting certainly can't save this turkey - all of the characters, even the human ones, behave more like robots than human beings, hamming their way through the interminable jiujitsu sequences as if they themselves are bored by their actions.
But wait! There's more! In a feeble attempt to justify the inane combat, the Wachowskis have stuffed the film with "philosophic content". This is too insipid to be described even as chicken-soup philosophy, sounding more like the confused, monotonous, rudimentary existentialist ramblings of an egocentric thirteen-year-old. Rather than writing these ideas into the plot, they have simply bundled them together in incoherent clumps and stuffed them at random intervals into the screenplay, resulting in unintelligent, meandering dialogue throughout. Not only does this suggest that the Wachowskis don't quite understand their own "philosophy", and may have lifted it from a story written by a dim-witted teenage nerd, but it demonstrates their lack of basic story-writing skills - not a good sign for moviemakers, or this movie.
So there you have it - your latest serving of half-baked, money-grubbing commercial swill. A filthy insult to the original film. 1/10.
I, Robot (2004)
An uncommonly coherent robot flick
It is sad to say that one look at the poster may be sufficient to dissuade you from seeing I, ROBOT. Such is the sheer quantity of half-baked, ill-proportioned sci-fi/action movies these days, it has, quite understandably, become common practice to dismiss every film that promises to be full of computer-generated wizardry and rip-roaring action, as a complete load of junk. And who can blame us, with the likes of TERMINATOR 3 and AVP littering our cinemas? I, ROBOT, however, is a shining exception, a resplendent piece of cinematic science fiction that deserves as much attention as possible.
The plot, adapted from clippings of Isaac Asimov's works, has been synthesised into a consistent and extremely entertaining whole. The film is set in the USA, circa 2035 CE, where advanced robots are beginning to take over aspects of human conduct. It follows the exploits of Del Spooner (a slightly more intense Will Smith), a brooding Chicago cop with a chip in his shoulder against robots, who is assigned to investigate the murder of a prominent technologist working for USR, the country's biggest robotics manufacturer. Alternately aided and hindered by a USR researcher (Bridget Moynahan), Spooner comes to the conclusion that his man was murdered by a robot, an anomalous, disarmingly emotional machine nicknamed "Sonny". Dismissed and derided by the majority for this theory, Spooner nonetheless persists with his investigation, and discovers that the world's robots are preparing to launch a revolution against humankind in violation of the three laws that govern them, co-ordinated by V.I.K.I, USR's artificially intelligent mainframe computer.
This intelligent, fast-paced and entertaining story is interwoven with soundings in philosophy that make the Wachowski brothers seem like dithering idiots (not that it's all that hard...). The philosophic content in I, ROBOT is coherently incorporated into the plot itself, as opposed to being crammed in in clumps in the case of THE MATRIX trilogy.
Much of the story is rendered in computer-generated graphics. While overuse of such technology can often make a film feel lifeless and unconvincing, the script is so entertaining and convincing that the graphics feel quite atmospheric.The robots themselves are sincerely haunting, presented in the manner of burnished steel skeletons.
I, ROBOT is, overall, a fresh and surprising film that's well-written enough to interest almost anybody. If there was an Academy Award for breaking genre trends, this would be a sure nominee. 9/10.
Johnny English (2003)
JOHNNY English is a comedy, pure and simple. It makes no pretensions to complexity, beauty or scriptwriting prowess, but is entirely devoted to the entertainment of the viewer. Such comedies are becoming increasingly rare nowadays, and this fine example deserves all the accolades it receives.
Rowan Atkinson rules the screen in his customary manner as Johnny English, a bumbling British bureaucrat who is transferred to MI5 after unwillingly causing the death of one of its top agents. Assisted by a beautiful and sassy Interpol officer (Natalie Imbruglia), he does battle with Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich), a nasty French business tycoon who has his eyes on the British crown. This is a unique performance from Atkinson, meshing the best comedic attributes of his best known characters into a coherent whole. Johnny English has all the rib-tickling sardonic wit of Blackadder and the unpredictable slapstick skill of Mr. Bean, and comedy fans of all tastes are sure to find something to their liking in this character.
Aussie songbird Natalie Imbruglia, however, proves that she's a much better musician than an actress. She's not bad, but she fails to reach the high threshold set by her co-stars. I have not seen any of her other films, so I don't know whether this is a reflection of her skills, or whether she was simply miscast. Regardless, her incongruous performance detracts from the dialogue somewhat, leaving the movie feeling a little unbalanced. She looks great, though!
"Mad" John Malkovich is characteristically quirky and extremely convincing as the villain - his French accent has improved out of sight since THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK. Providing a good background performance is Ben Miller as English's sidekick Bough, his consistent, pervasive dry humour a good foil to Atkinson's exuberance.
JOHNNY English requires no particular attitude or mindset whatsoever. It is a comedy, pure and simple, and an excellent one at that. 9/10.
Russkiy kovcheg (2002)
Stunning, haunting, fascinating
This is, without a doubt, the most visually, and in some respects, emotionally, beautiful film I have ever had the privilege to see. WOW! Alexander Sokurov has proved himself one of the greatest artistic directors of the age in this enthralling journey through Russian history, society and culture. As a viewer, I was emotionally overcome by the simultaneously melancholic, frenetic and enigmatic atmosphere. The actors are fantastic all-round, the script is flawlessly coherent, the cinematography is unparalleled, and it goes without saying that the scenery is nothing short of jaw-dropping.
A powerful and moving insight into a beautiful, complex and tragically misunderstood culture.
Artistic perfection. 10/10!